The Stranger (1946)
There is a free film channel in the UK called ‘Talking Pictures TV’. I recently managed to update my PVR to receive it, and have been enjoying its mix of old British films, and many American classics too.
This film starts with a man on the run. Allowed to escape from a European prison, he is nervous, obviously foreign, and he travels to South America, where he receives information about the location of a man he is desperate to get in contact with. Meanwhile, a team of investigators discuss his actions, hoping he will lead them to someone they are also seeking.
Small town America, 1946. White picket fences, and a place where everybody knows everyone else, and their business too. The war is just over, and people are settling back into the routine of jobs, and everyday life. When an edgy stranger gets off a bus, and goes into the local store that sells everything, he is immediately noticed. But he is also being followed, something he is unaware of. The stranger visits the house of a local College Professor, where he meets the man’s fiance, preparing for her wedding that evening. Unable to wait to see the man he is searching for, he goes off in the direction of the college, and encounters him in the woods.
This is film noir of course, but with a different slant. Nazis fleeing from prosecution, and the organisation determined to root them out. People hiding in plain sight, trusted and accepted by decent Americans living a prosperous and happy life in a town where you can walk home alone at night, and nothing ever happens except the arrival of the bus. A town where people love their dogs, respect the rich, and buy everything from one tiny shop. As the viewer, we readily accept this vision of a cosy utopia. One that is about to be shattered by unexpected events.
What lifts this above so many similar films is immediately obvious. An Oscar-nominated story, and the direction of Orson Welles, who also stars in the film, acting with his usual flair and precision. A dogged turn from a familiar Edward G. Robinson as the investigator, and solid support from Loretta Young, as the young woman deceived. We get an impossibly juvenile Richard Long as her brother, roped in to assist the investigator, and a priceless Billy House, as Mr Potter, the chequers-playing owner of the buy-everything store who sees all.
As you might expect, this is Welles’ film in every respect. His signature monologues dominate the scenes that feature them, and his wry grin pops up at just the right time. Direction is spot on too, from the overviews of the peaceful town, to claustrophobic night scenes in bedrooms and clock towers. Although to modern audiences, this might seem rather overblown, with Loretta Young often descending into melodrama, and the hunt for the elusive Nazis perhaps mirroring the Communist witch-hunts that came later, it is never less than entertaining, often gripping. The tension builds, then settles back into something homely and innocent, before racking up to the startling set-piece climax.
They don’t make them like they used to? They certainly don’t.